DURBAN – The Currie Cup starts in just over two weeks’ time and it will not be difficult to notice that the average age of the players will be ever younger.
Once arguably the toughest domestic competition in the world, the Currie Cup provided the stage for the elder statesmen of the South African game to strut their stuff before packed stadia.
But let’s not go down that painful road... the rugby landscape changed long ago, pretty much when the game went professional in 1996 and our players could play for considerably more than provincial pride and Springbok honours.
Suffice to say that players have been heading overseas at a rate just about as fast as the Rand has weakened - actually, player emigration and the growing pull of foreign currency are inextricably linked - and instead of our senior players going overseas for a golden handshake at the end of their careers, an uncomfortably large number in fact mature in Europe and enjoy their retirement benefit game in pounds or euros.
As the average age of the rugby emigrant has come down, so the number of seasoned warhorses in our teams has declined. We now have a situation where a player such as The Beast, who has played his entire career at the Sharks, is an anomaly to be treasured. Quite rightly so.
A rule of thumb is that an average player can earn a minimum of five times more in Europe than he can in South Africa. Go figure...
This might at first sound Irish but the player movement to Japan offers some comfort. How come? Because a number of the players are on contracts that allow them to come back for Super Rugby. It does not help the Currie Cup one bit but at least it is better than them going to Europe forever.
What we are saying is that half a loaf is better than none, or perhaps more fittingly, the Japan scenario is the lesser of the two evils.
The Lions alone will lose Warren Whiteley, Elton Jantjies, Lionel Mapoe, Lourens Erasmus and Ruan Combrinck to Japan. That is close to the heart of their Super Rugby team not available for the Currie Cup. Jaco Kriel and Franco Mostert were on similar deals but they are no longer Lions players.
The Sharks have lost captain Ruan Botha and strong leaders in Philip van der Walt and Stephan Lewies. Andre Esterhuizen has also been playing in Japan but is now with the Springboks for the Rugby Championship, and then will head east. The Bulls say goodbye to their captain Burger Odendaal, plus Jason Jenkins and Jannes Kirsten. RG Snyman is another Bull contracted to Japan who has been called up to the Boks.
The problem with this extended leave in Japan is that the franchises battle to have continuity from Super Rugby into the Currie Cup. It is frustrating for the coaches who want to fix problem areas from the recently ended Super Rugby.
Another issue was pointed out by Rassie Erasmus on Monday when he was asked about the inconsistent form of Jantjies. The Bok coach said that it did not help the flyhalf that he never gets a rest because of his Japanese commitments. Players in the Japanese boat are at sea for a long time and return to SA as Super Rugby is kicking off.
At the risk of clutching at straws, the flip side is that our coaches can use the Currie Cup to grow Super Rugby depth, hone the skills of youngsters and cultivate leadership.
Unfortunately, that is just about it.